Colonial Sanitation (Or Lack Thereof)

We all know an old person or grandmother that tries to do an old fashioned voodoo-esque medical procedure on us when we get hurt. My grandmother always tries to chew bread and cover my bruises because she claims it will help. Our grandparents are alive today and even then they are beyond old-school. Just imagine what people must have done 300 hundred years ago, when there was no Neosporin(*gasp*) and disease was as common among people as Toms are among us today.

Colonial America had a lot of problems caused by poor sanitation. Houses had no bathrooms. People did their business either in little tubs called chamber pots that they kept under their beds (EW!) or in little wooden houses outside that had a hole dug in the ground. People often got gross diseases like cholera from waste that was disposed of improperly, got mixed in rivers and streams, and contaminated peoples’ drinking water. Another huge complication in colonial sanitation was the colonists’ reluctance to take baths. They believed that their layer of uber-nasty grime was a repellent of grime (how does that even make sense?). Every once in a while, the colonists would dip a towel in water and wipe themselves down, successfully spreading the germs all over their bodies and accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Doctor Doctor! Just kidding. The doctors in colonial America actually killed more people than they saved. Doctors were formally recognized in the 1760s. “They were often only educated to take care of broken bones, prescribe herbs and hard liqueur, and vanquish evil spirits. In fact, very few doctors had any formal training or learned from other physicians in an informal setting.(Oliveri, 13)” Bleeding was a common practice, and the cuts often got infected or the doctor bled the patient too much, killing them. Mothers were the assigned doctors of the house. They had a whole bunch of herbs that they used to “treat” family members.

Some common diseases in colonial America were smallpox, pneumonia, and cholera. Many of these diseases spread because of the lack of sanitation. Religion was another reason that many people died from diseases. Puritan preachers declared that disease came from Gd as punishment for sin. They felt it was against God’s wishes to fight disease. Because they didn’t understand diseases, they also tried to exorcise people that they thought were acting possessed.

Even though the colonists in early America were really bad at being clean, they did have a few tricks up their sleeves that might or might not have worked. Colonists used cottonweed to keep away lice and moths. They also believed that smoking it would relieve coughs (ha ha that’s smart…). Dittany was used to keep away venemous animals and as an antitoxin for poisonous weapons and also to remove splinters. With all of this disease and the less than smart approaches to curing them, it makes one wonder how America got anywhere at all. Hmmm….. (*thoughtful face*)



One thought on “Colonial Sanitation (Or Lack Thereof)

  1. This post was really interesting to read. I always like to read about the smaller things of history, like daily life during a historical era.

    I’d also like to mention that there are still people out there who believe in using religion alone to heal people. This is saddening, because in stories like these there would be a child who had an illness that could have been treated in a modern day hospital, but the children would die because their parents thought it would have been better to keep the child in bed, constantly reading Bible quotes to him/her and praying rather than taking the child to a hospital. It’s sad that some things that must change never change.

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